We're Dreaming of a 3D iPad

We're Dreaming of a 3D iPad

The fanboy blogs are abuzz with thinly sourced reports about what Apple will unveil at next Wednesday's new product party in San Francisco, but after reading some of Apple's recent patent filings, we have one of our own: iPad 3D. 

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As with all things Apple, we know little about the company's upcoming products until they're announced. This information finds its way to us from Apple announcements (obviously), patent filings (less obviously) and leaks (mysteriously). It's certain that Apple is releasing a new product next week, because they told us so, and given that an image of an iPad is on the invitation, it's nearly certain that the announcement will be iPad-related. Most tech reporters seem to agree that it will be the iPad 3, featuring a new screen and a faster processor. A new Apple TV unit could be part of the announcement, as hinted by some parts numbers uncovered by 9 to 5 Mac. But based on Apple's history of patent filings, the feature we're hoping for is that the new ultra high resolution iPad screen will actually include technology capable of producing interactive, glasses-free 3D images.

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Regardless of what happens next week, Apple's been working on 3D screens for years. While the company likely started thinking about how to do 3D way back in the 80s, when Apple emerged as the leading computers for image-manipulation. But the patent applications for 3D technology have only really started flowing in the past three years.

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The most recent 3D-related patent that Apple was awarded basically turns your computer screen into a room that you can play around in. However, in an separate application filed on February 9, the company described new technology as a "three dimensional user interface effects on a display by using properties of motion." In other words, it's a screen that produces 3D images without glasses. How, you might ask? It tracks your eyeball movement. "Once this continuous frame of reference is known, the position of a user's eyes may either be inferred or calculated directly by using a device's front-facing camera," the patent application reads. "With the position of the user's eyes and a continuous 3D frame-of-reference for the display, more realistic virtual 3D depictions of the objects on the device's display may be created and interacted with by the user." (See Figure 8 to the right or check out the full application in PDF format here.) An iPhone is used in the patent application, but an iPad is just one big iPhone. We wrote about some more Apple 3D patents last year, if you're interested in reading more.

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This month's application comes in addition to 14 other patents Apple was awarded a couple of weeks before Steve Jobs's death in November. Among them are a couple of mobile 3D screen-related inventions, one of which Patently Apple described as "a patent for Motion Plane Correction for MEMs-Based Input Devices -- which utilizes a form of nanotechnology." In plain English, the blog says that "the invention could equally be used in context with a remote or game pad."

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If, as 9-to-5 Mac reported on Tuesday, Apple is due to release a new Apple TV that depends on the iPad as a remote control, there are few reasons not to believe that it will include some sort of 3D element. All of the focus in other reports about the new iPad focuses on Apple adding a super high-resolution Retina display and a faster A6 processor. Besides photo editing, these components enable more powerful gaming and video capabilities. It would also be patently Apple (pun) for them to blow everyone away with a "one more thing" detail that the iPad 3 also does 3D. Why not? 3D is great for gaming, amazing for movies and would absolutely open up the app space in game-changing ways.

In the past few iterations of its touchscreen devices, Apple's been adding features that enable developers to explore the full range of possibilities of the iPhone and iPad's touchscreen, gyroscopic capabilities. Besides music and email and stuff, the most exciting areas of potential come in the gaming and video realms. Now that they cameras -- and we're just gonna go ahead and guess the next iPad will include a camera on par with the one in the iPhone 4S -- iPads can act as interactive controllers, remotes and even see-through screens all at once. We're not really into video games, but apps like Star Walk, an interactive astronomy portal, show off well how the new features can produce super futuristic results. (If you're a gamer, you should check out these new recommendations for games at CNET.)

No other company's come close to doing this with 3D displays, much less mobile 3D displays. Lest we haven't been clear enough already: This is pure speculation and a bit of wishful thinking. But it's speculation based on a few facts we know to be true. We won't truly know how cool (or disappointing) the new iPad model is until Apple actually shows it to the world.